If the Pittsburgh Steelers have learned anything over the past decade, it should be to keep more than just the current and following year's salary cap situation in mind when managing the organization's financial on-field roster.
By matching the New England Patriots offer sheet to Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers once again chose the now over the later.
Certainly, Sanders depature would have left a definite void in his wake. With Mike Wallace already gone to the Miami Dolphins, the receiving corps would have been narrowed down to a patchwork skeleton crew, consisting of work-in-progress Antonio Brown, work-already-progressed Jerricho Cotchery and work-in-regress Plaxico Burress.
The vacuum created by Sanders exit would have almost certainly sucked a few receivers to the top of the team's draft board, opening up the possibilities of the team uncharacteristically reaching for a player on position instead of their typical best-player-available method. However, the team would have received the 91st overall pick this year as compensation to buffer their inferiority anxieties.
Toss in repeated reports of his outstanding character, and the Sanders signing seems to bear only positives for a team in transition denial; especially considering the Steelers remain under the cap after increasing his pay to keep him. While many were surprised by the team only offering him a minimum RFA tender after giving fellow young money man Wallace a first-round worthy offer last season. The Steelers wisdom actually saved themselves over $200k from what they paid Wallace, and even slightly more compared to 2013's first-round tender value.
While it can be argued the Steelers basically got a bargain, it could end up costing them in the long run.
First, the misconception about the team needing to over-value receivers would have most likely proved accurate. A few possible options will be available when Pittsburgh picks 17th in the upcoming NFL draft, but with the numerous conflicting reports and measurables, none of them are guaranteed to be viable options.
Making things even worse are those following the team pushing for a player like Tavon Austin; proving we learned absolutely nothing from the Chris Rainey experiment last year. Not only would the Steelers have reached for a similar player, but they would have been rewarded with similar results. While Rainey's skillset was explosive - especially in the return game - it was overshadowed by penalties and revolving special teams personnel, proving one player alone does not a better team make.
With this being said, would Sanders becoming a Patriot have been so detrimental to the Steelers championship chances?
Of course, on gamedays, teams want to field the best possible roster. Unfortunately, for team front office's, everyday is gameday, and every move made has to not only consider the today and the next day, but next year and the year after as well. Sanders ensures a solid group in 2013, but his single-season deal means Brown will be the only veteran under contract beyond. While the team is expected to receive a few supplemental picks in the 2014 draft for free-agents they lost this year, too many unproven guys would be forced into the spotlight to wait to address the position if Sanders chooses to sign elsewhere when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season.
To avoid placing so much pressure on the draft, signing Sanders to an extension would seem like the right move; unfortunately old cap scars remind us of the dangers of buying high and then having to sell low, even at a loss.
The team remains ~$700k under the cap, nearly their final net difference from 2012. The cap differences are able to be carried over to the following season as a credit. However, even though the team has made difficult decisions with tenured veterans James Harrison and Willie Colon, and even James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward from last season, their heads still aren't above the water's surface yet.
The team is already over next year's cap without even knowing how much of an increase the cap will see by then. Restructuring will be almost guaranteed as the team attempts to conform, much like they have in year's past. Which begs the question, will the team be able to afford Sanders beyond 2013? His signing of the Patriots offer proves he is trying to be smart with his professional career, as he should. Smart professionals seek the maximum possible compensation for their efforts.
If salary caps were narrowed down to positional groups, perhaps Sanders situation wouldn't feel as cumbersome; but caps encircle the entire roster. Wide receiver is not the only position which needs to be addressed for the long-term.
Several other players will see their contracts expire over the next two seasons. Outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, and running backs Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch - with only Dwyer demanding future positional consideration through his performance and age combination.
Looking through the rest of the roster reminds us of the dwindling careers of Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor - all players who will not simply be replaced with just anyone. The team is relying on Larry Foote to team with Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker, with doubt hanging over Sean Spence's recovery and Stevenson Sylvester's ability to play more than special teams.
With the Steelers undeniably needing all the draft picks and cap space they can get their hands on, why match Sanders' offer? Not only did the team deny itself an extra top-100 selection, they also denied themselves $2.5 million in cap space. With cash spending minimums not being enforced until next season, and several teams with significant cap space remaining; having extra cap space to turn into cap credit next year when the cap is set to see a significant jump, creates the perfect opportunity to keep a young core together. However, the Steelers may have just married the difference to Sanders, if they kept him in hopes of keeping him even longer.
While any football executive worth his paycheck will tell you to take proven over potential anyday, the Steelers do not have the ability to slow down time, which erodes every NFL locker room. They need to recogize duct tape as a temporary fix, and not the universal adapter Red Green promotes it to be.
Obviously, there is more to any situation than the organization will discuss through the media, and Sanders experience in the offense will only expedite the team's progress. However, if the team is unable or does not expect to be able to re-sign him to an extension, anything less than a 2013 Super Bowl championship would make the Sanders saga an epic failure.